This is post 1 of Deal me In. For more about this project & my previous posts on it, go here: Reading Plans | Weeks 1 (you are here)
I am using the playing card shuffler, and today I got: ♥four♥. For my deck of ♥Hearts♥, I assigned the short-story collection Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin de Siècle (1993), a Virago Modern Classic edited by Elaine Showalter. Today’s short-story is
Week 1 – ♥Four♥
- “Miss Grief” by Constance Fenimore Woolson (1880)
- Also published in Miss Grief and other Stories, ed. Anne Boyd Rioux (2016); and in Scribbling Women: Short Stories by 19th-Century American Women, ed. Elaine Showalter (1997).
- My rating: ★★★★★
We are in Italy, where our narrator is enjoying a successful life as a novelist. He openly acknowledges himself to be a conceited man: “‘A conceited fool’ is a not uncommon expression. Now, I know that I am not a fool, but I also know that I am conceited. But, candidly, can it be helped if one happens to be young, well and strong, passably good-looking, with some money that one has inherited and more that one has earned—in all, enough to make life comfortable—and if upon this foundation rests also the pleasant superstructure of a literary success?”
From the opening lines, quoted above, we already have a taste of the author’s use of irony to play with the narrator’s lack of self-awareness: “I could not write, and so I took up a French novel (I model myself a little on Balzac)”.
One day, a middle-aged, impoverished woman shows up at the writer’s door in Rome. He is not at home at the moment, so she leaves her name with his butler: Miss Grief. “One evening, upon returning to my lodgings, my man Simpson informed me that a person had called in the afternoon, and upon learning that I was absent had left not a card, but her name—’Miss Grief.’ The title lingered—Miss Grief! ‘Grief has not so far visited me here,’ I said to myself, dismissing Simpson and seeking my little balcony for a final smoke, ‘and she shall not now. I shall take care to be ‘not at home’ to her if she continues to call’.”
For some unknown reason, Miss Grief is adamant that she must meet this writer, and begins to make him daily visits. Thinking that she must be an impoverished gentlewoman trying to sell her antiques, our narrator keeps avoiding her (and never misses an opportunity to play with double meaning and make fun of her name). “The stranger came a third time, and I was absent; then she let two days pass, and began again. It grew to be a regular dialogue between Simpson and myself when I came in at night: ‘Grief to-day?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘What time?’ ‘Four, sir.’ ‘Happy the man,’ I thought, ‘who can keep her confined to a particular hour!’”
One day, however, he happens to be at home when she arrived. As it turns out, his butler had misunderstood her name: Miss Grief is actually Miss Aaronna Moncrief, named after the male name her father had chosen (Aaron) for what he expected to have been a son. Furthermore, our stranger is no antiques dealer, but a writer. She wants our narrator to read her writing. “‘An authoress! This is worse than old lace,’ I said to myself in dismay. — Then, aloud, ‘My opinion would be worth nothing, Miss Crief.’”
But Aaronna is having none of it, and our narrator finally relents and agrees to read her manuscript. To his surprise, he discovers that, although flawed in his eyes, her work has power. It is something disturbing but unique. He gives her some suggestions of what must be changed for possible publication, but, again to his surprise, Aaronna refuses to change anything.
Later, our narrator will himself try to rewrite her book, only to discover that he is not able to change anything without destroying that which had been unique in Aaronna’s writing. It was like trying to take out a figure in a carpet: something impossible, unless you unravel the whole. “I was forced at last to make up my mind that either my own powers were not equal to the task, or else that her perversities were as essential a part of her work as her inspirations, and not to be separated from it.”
Throughout the story, the narrator insists on referring to Aaronna as Miss Grief, in a condescending tone that mirrors the way the male-dominated literary milieu of his time treated women who tried to break through its glass ceiling. The story is peppered with instances in which our narrator belittles Aaronna, expresses a misogynist point of view, and treats as eccentric women who act with agency and intelligence: “But I should not have treated my visitor so cavalierly if I had not felt sure that she was eccentric and unconventional—qualities extremely tiresome in a woman no longer young or attractive”; “I did not put down my book. My visitor should have a hearing, but not much more: she had sacrificed her womanly claims by her persistent attacks upon my door”.
The highlight of the story, for me, was its use of perspective to throw a sharp, ironic light into the idea of literary merit in a male-dominated publishing industry: precisely because our narrator has an inflated ego (and a shallow understanding of his craft), he refuses to take a woman’s work seriously and to recognize that its true value may lie in something different than what is usually considered of value. I also enjoyed the story’s encoded sapphic hints, and its undercurrent of suppressed rage.
The story will end on a dark note, where our narrator’s approval may come to mean Aaronna’s death. He is not a reliable narrator, and his role in her erasure may even be more active than he is willing to let us know. Miss Grief’s manuscripts will depart with her – “unread, as I have been.”
This story is a sharp exploration of the ways gender informed the ideas of literary value and merit. We can see more than our narrator is willing to see; and the real story within the story he is telling us actually happens inside his blind spots.
That’s all for now, folks. What short stories are you reading this week? Tell me about it.